NEW ORLEANS — When, not if, his named was called, Tyrann Mathieu had promised himself that he wasn’t going to cry.
But as the Arizona Cardinals made the former LSU cornerback their third-round draft pick Friday night, Mathieu not only broke down but also collapsed to the floor amid the well-wishes of perhaps 50 friends and family members at Happy’s Irish Pub, where they had gathered to see his immediate NFL future decided.
“This was supposed to be just football, and I’ve been playing it for a long time,” the St. Augustine graduate said. “But to get this second chance — and to know it’s your last chance — I just felt a tremendous weight had come off my shoulders.”
His mother, Tyra, agreed.
“I’m so proud and happy and excited for him,” she said. “He’s just come such a long way. I never gave up on him. What happened for him tonight, he deserves it.”
For a time, Mathieu’s football future was cloudy at best.
“Honey Badger” went from being an All-American and Heisman finalist in 2011 to being dismissed from LSU for reportedly failing multiple drug tests and spent the 2012 season out of football. In October, Mathieu and three former LSU teammates were arrested when marijuana and drug paraphernalia were found in their apartment.
There was debate about whether he had overcome an admitted dependence on marijuana as well as how a 5-foot-9, 180-pounder with somewhat questionable coverage skills could manage in a league where size is a more desirable quality in the secondary than in the past.
Plus, there were reports that Mathieu’s attitude was poor during some of his visits with interested teams and even an embarrassing announcement this week about a first-round after-party at a New York night club — when it was universally considered that he had no shot to go that high.
That’s why speculation on Mathieu’s draft position went anywhere from the second or third round to perhaps being passed over altogether.
But in the end, the Cardinals — thanks in part to Patrick Peterson, Arizona’s Pro Bowl strong safety and a former LSU teammate who had taken Mathieu under his guidance — called his name as the 69th player selected.
“Patrick is my big brother, and he had a lot to do with it,” said Mathieu, who lived with Peterson and his family in South Florida for much of the winter while he trained for the NFL Scouting Combine. “He’s their premier guy — their franchise guy. They take his word seriously. I just can’t wait to get out there with him.”
“The guy is ready to play football,” Peterson said. “He made a mistake, was in an position where he got caught with the marijuana, but he understands the importance of being accountable and being a role model, so that stuff’s behind him.”
But even the Cardinals added a caveat — Mathieu will be subject to weekly drug testing. Coach Bruce Arians also said Mathieu would play free safety, not cornerback.
“(Arians) just told me to come in with my head on straight and look forward to making plays because they expect it out of me,” Mathieu said. “I’m fine with the drug testing. It’s still a struggle for me. You’ve got to understand the process and that every day is not going to be a great day.”
Arizona General Manager Steve Keim said the team will do what it takes to help Mathieu.
“We are going to take the necessary measures to make sure he walks the straight and narrow,” he said. “We felt comfortable with the risk that was involved.”
“He impressed me so much in my office one on one, knowing at this point in time what he needs to do in his life,” Arians said.
Among those calling Mathieu on Friday with good wishes was LSU coach Les Miles.
“He’s very happy for me,” Mathieu said. “He definitely wanted me to go to Arizona with Patrick over there. He said it couldn’t be a better situation for me, and I’m grateful to coach Miles for sticking with me.”
Mathieu wasn’t the only LSU player drafted by the Arizona on Friday. The Cardinals took linebacker Kevin Minter in the second round.
Until that point, Mathieu had been watching the draft from a couch with his brother, Tyrone, and his girlfriend, Sydni Russell. Camera crews from ESPN and the NFL Network were present.
But after Minter was picked, Mathieu got up, walked around, ate a little and even shot pool with his personal assistant, Troy Randall.
“I was just trying to get through the night,” he said. “... I just tried to keep my head up and know that God was going to be there for me.”
Mathieu also said that despite the turmoil in his life for the past two years, he feels that there was value in it.
“I’m grateful for what I went through because it taught me so much,” he said. “I’m just blessed tonight.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report